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Ten out of ten for awkwardness: why we can’t get enough of ‘fremdschämen’

Brilliant new dramedy Ten Percent, which follows the fates of a team of celebrity agents, has been brought to the screen by the award-winning writer-director behind comedy W1A, and highlights a particularly British form of embarrassment. Here we explore the phenomenon of fremdschämen and why it’s such a cornerstone of our culture…

Wednesday 04 May 2022 10:50 BST
(Prime Video)

Trust the Germans to have the perfect word for a very British social phenomenon – that of fremdschämen, or, in lay terms, the embarrassment you feel for someone who has embarrassed themselves. This second-hand cringe at another person’s faux pas is the kinder, gentler relation to another, more familiar German phrase, schadenfreude – joy at someone else’s pain. Think a Best Man’s speech falling flatter than yesterday’s bubbly, the uncool boss trying to be down with the younger staff, that chat-up line that wildly misses its mark… More importantly, fremdschämen is the mainstay of many a great British comedy series, whether that’s The Office, Twenty Twelve or W1A, where the awks moments pile up like car crashes on a motorway.

Award-winning writer and director John Morton, the comedic genius behind both Twenty Twelve and W1A in all their excruciating glory, is the driving force behind Ten Percent, out now on Prime Video – a gloriously British version of the cult French show Dix Pour Cent following the ups (and many downs) of a group of agents managing a host of real-life A-listers. Think a dramedy cross between The Office and The Devil Wears Prada, filmed and set in central London’s chic media heartlands of Soho and Fitzrovia.

With Ten Percent, Parisian extravagance gives way to various degrees of buttoned-up British fremdschämen as the talent handlers at bijou agency Nightingale Hart struggle with their stars’ peccadillos, screw-ups and vulnerabilities, as well each other’s generous baggage of foibles and fallibilities. “Our characters are forever making decisions or saying things on the spur of the moment,” says Morton, “and then trying to row back from the consequences when they realize what they’ve done.”

But what is it, exactly, that marks out the British awkwardness inherent in the likes of WIA and Ten Percent? “In British life — in British cultural life, political life, the entertainment world, and even social life, really — it’s often about what’s not being said or done,” says Morton. “It’s not on the surface.”

There are awks aplenty in Ten Percent , as the agents manage the ups and downs of their A-list clients (Prime Video)

“Brits love laughing at other people’s misfortunes,” says Julian Hall, author of The Rough Guide to British Cult Comedy, “but we do lap up the comedy of cringe, too. The discomfort around that is what makes it so hellish – and so funny. There’s a perverse pleasure in watching, a disbelief that someone could get themselves in such a pickle, mixed with the relief of knowing it’s not you experiencing that cringe. We like our fremdschämen and our schadenfreude in equal measures.”

Being all about agents, stars, and those who want to shine, Ten Percent’s peculiarly British awkwardness around relationships is almost an overarching character in itself when it comes to the misadventures of Jack Davenport’s Jonathan, the buttoned-up son of Nightingale Hart’s founder Richard (Jim Broadbent).

And when a sudden, unexpected event unleashes all manner of office-based upset, the agents find themselves tilted into a mash-up of damage limitation, self-serving sleights of hand, and hapless desperation with the future of the agency itself at risk. With Lydia Leonard as arch, urbane Rebecca, Prasanna Puwanarajah as boyish, under-confident Dan, Maggie Steed as industry veteran Stella (never seen without her dog Mathias) and Hiftu Quasem as new arrival Misha, in Ten Percent, what’s left unsaid is often as crucial as the dialogue, and the comedic awkwardness of crossed lines, dropped hints and hanging questions drive the action as effectively as the caper-strewn plots.

Moreover, with the likes of Dominic West, David Oyelowo, Kelly Macdonald and Helena Bonham Carter taking considerable pleasure in playing comedy versions of themselves in varying degrees of role-related distress – the awks factor is upped to near-nuclear levels.

Finally, though the watch-through-your-hands dramedy of Ten Percent is being safely inflicted on the show’s fictional agents, there’s a resonance with our own lives, as we slowly return to office life and all the potential snafus and dramas of IRL work. Making this the perfect watch to offset any of our own first-hand cringe, via the delicious social pratfalls, hilarious scrapes and the last-minute face-saves of the Nightingale Hart team.

Ever wondered what it would be like to look after the rich and famous? Then check out Ten Percent, the brilliant new dramedy from Prime Video following the lives and careers of a likeable bunch of A-list agents at a fictional London firm. From the award-winning writer behind W1A and 2012, and starring Jack Davenport, Jim Broadbent, Lydia Leonard and an incredible cast of real-life stars including Helena Bonham Carter, David Oyelowo, Kelly Macdonald, Phoebe Dynevor and Dominic West, it’s your new must-binge-watch. All eight episodes of Ten Percent are on Prime Video from 28 April – for more info click here

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